Whatever curious and interesting subject strikes my fancy, be it silly or serious, gets posted for your reading pleasure.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

I'm Keeping the Partridge, (and the Pear Tree Too!)

‘Tis the season to sing carols, fah la la la lah, la lah, lah, lah!

Yes, I just had to include all the fah, la, lahs.

(Image: "Partridge in a Pear Tree" by Lynn Bywaters)

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without all the sacred hymns and jingly secular tunes that reminds us of what the season is all about, including all the nonsense syllables like ‘fah la lah’, or the cryptic lyrics in some carols that have us wondering what they could possibly mean every year we hear them sung.  You’ve already guessed from the title I’m thinking in particular of the repetitive song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” listing an unusual and generous assortment of gifts presented from one sweetheart to another.  “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me...”. 

I once read that the gifts were supposed to be symbolic of various points of Catholic doctrine, a hidden ‘underground’ catechism to help the  Catholics learn their faith at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalized in England in 1558 until 1829. That sounds like a logical and satisfactory explanation, right?

Now, I  have just read that the original article supposedly explaining the spiritual meaning of the lyrics was  only suggestive and did not present any historical facts!

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist named Hugh D. McKellar published a piece entitled "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas", concocting an explanation for each gift and how they represented the Catholic Faith.  McKellar offered no evidence for his claim and subsequently admitted in 1994 that the purported dogmatic associations were his own interpretations that the symbols suggested to him for 'evocative  symbols do not allow for any definitve explanation':

 In any case, really evocative symbols do not allow of [sic] definitive explication, exhausting all possibilities. I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades, hoping thereby to start you on your own quest.  (Hugh D.McKellar, "The Twelve Days of Christmas", The Hymn Vol. 45, No.4, October 1994)

To make matters worse, people assumed his explanations were the true intended meanings and innocently spread his conjectures as fact for years.  In fact, you still see these theoretical explanations of the lyrics floating around the internet and other sources:

Partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ, symbolized as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from helpless nestlings.

Two turtle doves: Old and New Testaments

Three French Hens: Faith, hope, charity

Four Calling Birds: The Four Gospels

Five Golden Rings: The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy)

Six Geese a Laying: 6 days of creation

Seven Swans a Swimming: 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Eight Maids a-Milking: 8 Beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing: 9 Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten Lords a-Leaping: 10 Commandments

Eleven Pipers Piping: The 11 faithful disciples
Twelve  Drummers Drumming: 12 articles of the Apostles Creed

Sad to say, there is no proof this was the original meaning of the song, and was in fact only a suggestive explanation.  If you’ve noticed, these are not just Catholic articles of faith, but also tenants believed by Protestants.  There is no reason to hide the meaning of the song as believers from either faith could sing it, even during the persecution times. 

Here are a few facts: the English version of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was first published without music in 1780 in a children’s book entitled “Mirth Without Mischief”, and the last order of the gifts were as follows:  8 Maids a’ Milking, 9 Drummers Drumming,  10 Pipers Piping, 11 Ladies Dancing, 12, Lords a Leaping.  The idea was the gift was to be grander than the last, so of course it would end with a bunch of festive, merrymaking aristocrats.  This order of gifts was retained in subsequent versions, but was mixed up as time passed.  The current version of the song we know including the mixed up gifts seems to have originated from an edition published in 1909 by Frederic Austin, who also changed the ‘four colly birds’ (blackbirds) to ‘calling birds’.

So, despite the cheery holiday tune, the real purpose of the song is not as lofty as we were led to believe.  There is evidence the song first originated in France, and when it arrived in England, it was sung by children as a silly forfeits game: each person playing the game had to remember their verse, and if they got it wrong when their turn came, they had to forfeit a kiss or a sweet.  Hence, the repetitive (and sometimes annoying!) nature of the lyrics.  In fact, the original French version there is no pear tree in the first line, just a ‘pretty partridge’.

Yes, I’m disappointed!  If there is a higher meaning to the lyrics, we may never know what it is for certain, the numbers associated with the gifts could be attributed to any of the mystic numbers associated with the Christian Faith.

 At least McKellar attempted to present a spiritual interpretation, and even if we can't give credence to all his proposed meanings, I refuse to relinquish one of the symbolisms ~ the pretty partridge and the pear tree.  It is one of the few images that bear a truly Christian meaning in the carol.


 (Image: French Partridge and chicks, by Archibald Thorburn, 1915)

When I think of a partridge, St. John the Evangelist, the Apostle beloved of Christ, immediately springs to mind.  According to the 'Acts of John' purportedly written by his disciple, Leucius Charinus, St. John used to be amused by a pet partridge, picking it up and stroking it, or watching it play and preen its feathers in the dust.  One day he was questioned by a hunter who wondered how so great a man like him chosen by God and working so many miracles could lower himself to playing with a little creature like that.  Finding amusement in something so simple should be beneath him! St. John just calmly asked the hunter what he had in his hand and the hunter replied he had a bow.  John then asked why it was not always stretched ready for the hunt, and the hunter replied if it was always strung it would lose its tension and cease to be useful.  John replied he was doing the same in taking some relaxation and finding some time for humble, simple amusements to ease his mind, for if he was always stretched at work his mind would eventually grow as slack as his bow and would not be able to obey the power of the Spirit.

The story is not just a reminder of the need to take some time off once in awhile, it recalls the virtue of humility as it was deemed base for St. John to find amusement and spend time with a simple creature like that.  As we return to the Christmas carol, what a wonderful reminder St. John’s partridge is, that Christ for love us came humbly as a baby ~ the Lamb of God was born in a stable and laid in a manger.

I’m also 'keeping' the pear tree even if it is a later English addition, for there is something quite intriguing as the song progresses: there is an unusual accrual of numbers that show the multiplied 'fruits' of humility if you examine the lyrics from another angle.

In the beginning only one tree and partridge is given as a present, yet by the end of the song, it is sung twelve times, and while the lady love may have been given a magnificent gathering of twelve lords a' leaping at the conclusion, they are mentioned only once.  The eleven regal ladies are presented only twice, the ten pipers three times, etc, according to the orginal order of the gifts. So, all the humble presents presented in the beginning multiply while the seemingly luxurious and pride-filled gifts actually dwindle in the end despite their number.  Of importance, the song begins and ends with the partridge and the tree, the Alpha and Omega of the entire carol: if we have Christ, we have a treasure indeed!  I cannot help but think of this passage in the Book of Revelation written by St. John:

“And he shewed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the Tree of Life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no curse any more; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him.” (Apoc. 22: 1-3)

I wonder if the heavenly fruits resemble a pear?

May all my readers have a blessed a peaceful Christmas and New Year!

Here are some Posts from ‘Christmas Past’:

* The Rich Man's Son, A Christmas Story 

If you like my blog, you may LOVE my books!

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